Those who know me well know that I’m old-fashioned in a lot of ways. This is especially true for anything having to do with electronics and digital media. I’d rather write in my notebook or dial my rotary phone (yes…I have one).
In spite of my crotchety attitude towards technology, I still recognize the extraordinary promise that it holds. And it’s in the new frontiers of automation and artificial intelligence.
We know that many jobs are being lost due to automation. Millions more will be lost in the next decade…What are we to do when robots and machines do everything for us?
It need not be our doomsday. These technologies are pushing us to create a new world order. Maybe it’s less about the end of jobs, and more about the end of mundane, menial, and unfulfilling work. A lot of jobs in service, retail, manufacturing, and many other industries were once rich and complex, involving intimate knowledge of products and decision-making and discretion. But much of that has been lost as employees have become increasingly constrained by overly specialized, de-skilled job roles. We don’t see where we fit into the bigger picture.
Thankfully, that’s not true everywhere. Case in point: a recent customer service phone call. I went through all the familiar prompts – the robot lady was pleasant enough – but I needed to have a conversation with a live being. Robot Lady connected me to a mellifluous voice who patiently listened to my questions and gave me all the knowledge I needed. She had a gift with people, excellent training, and support from her boss to spend 15 minutes on the phone talking just to me, meeting my every need. At the end of the conversation, I thanked her and asked if I could speak with her again the next time I needed help. She said it was not possible because of the automated nature (that word again) of how the calls were randomly passed along at the service center.
Most of our organizations have transactional relations with our audiences: we deliver products and services as quickly as possible, shuffling along customers to the next person (or computer) available because it’s efficient and cost-effective.
But what if, as a rule, we change the nature of the work from fleeting transactional encounters between strangers into long-term relationships between staff and clients? The demand for emotional intelligence would rise, and our emphasis on speed and efficiency would shift towards a greater value on human connection. Computers tell us our account balances, but we want people to listen to our grievances, hear our stories, move beyond the black-and-white and recognize the gray matter in our experiences. We want to hear someone say, “I’m really sorry, here’s what I’m going to do to fix this situation.”
Some people might find this too “kumbaya.” Those of us who prefer to work alone, write algorithms, compose new theorems, or draw up great engineering and architecture projects, fear not. Humans will still remain at the helm of science and research, invention and discovery, interpreting knowledge with the assistance of machines, just as we do now.
The point is that we are at a real historical crossroads. We have serious choices to make about how to apply our technologies. Here’s one possible trajectory: As automation and A.I. take over conventional work, more of us will be grappling with the deeper questions: Who am I? What can I do for this world? How can I be the best I can be? Herein lies our chance to create not only new kinds of jobs, but new kinds of organizations based on higher purpose and human communities. Our organizations will survive and stay relevant if we evolve to meet this call. The best organizations of the future will offer opportunities for whole-person learning and development, and call upon us to continually grow in our talents and abilities as people, not just as workers.
Let’s experiment with this trajectory and move beyond the concept of mere jobs. Let’s develop fulfilling occupations in balance with the rest of our lives. Let’s go beyond the contract between employer and employee, and expand our freedom to choose how we want to conduct our lives. And finally, let’s focus on creating work that is enjoyable and fun. Isn’t that what life is supposed to be about, after all?